dear Petrov, Susan Tepper’s richly poetic novel told in episodic units, takes place in the nineteenth century, a time when, thanks to bombardment from every side with this sentiment, even many women would have agreed with Lord Byron’s epigraph: “Love is of man’s life a thing apart; ’tis woman’s whole existence.”
We never know the narrator’s name but we are fully privy to her tortured soul as she waits for Petrov, her soldier lover. We are with her as she experiences a brutish life with him: she nurtures one bag of grain, remembers a blustering stomping man who goes to bed in his boots, buries a miscarried child (“smaller than my palm”), alone.
Only when he comes is there plenty, sometimes provided by him, sometimes procured for him in hidden ways: “Where do you suppose I found the money to buy succulent food for our table. How do you imagine a woman in such circumstances acquires money. But then you do not imagine. Mostly you are gone with your belly full of meat and drink.”
Unrequited love is, of course, nothing new. Most of us have suffered from that to some degree in our journey from adolescence to adulthood, and most of us come to terms with what turns out to be a passing fancy, a mismatch of ideals, an absence of the requisite pheromones. But once in a while, whispered about, confessed, written about, it’s something more malevolent, at least to the one who loves. To the other, it is sport.
This is the province of the daemon lover, whether supernatural or only a good male child of the culture, and there is good reason to believe that this is the case with Petrov, beloved of a woman who seems to accept every hardship and indignity of love without hatred or even resentment, only with a resolution to endure, to prepare more food (for him) although exhausted, make the most of inadequate clothing. and to do it all with fire and dedication.
Tepper’s exposition of the daemon lover genre demonstrates the requisite patriarchal control of women by restricting their access to the means of economic self-sufficiency. Sadly, this narrative in western culture has usually meant that women are convinced it is natural starve and shiver in the bonds of love while waiting for the lover to supply her with everything she needs, from food and warmth to love. Occasionally Petrov returns and sometimes dumps a sack full of money on a table. “I’ve always deferred to you,” she says and wonders, “Why should a man believe he owns a woman?”
Her work joins that of Elizabeth Bowen (“The Demon Lover”), Shirley Jackson (“The Daemon Lover”), Christina Rossetti (“Goblin Market”), and the authors of many Gothic romances in writing about a woman obsessed with a lover who spurns her, even though modern narratives, after letting the lover brood, shout, and strut, often subvert the genre, letting the misunderstood lover return to true love, a woman, and a rose-covered cottage.
Dr. Chiyo Nakagama, in her paper Fears of the Demon Lover: Female Paranoia in the Demon Lover Stories by Elizabeth Bowen and Shirley Jackson, traces modern fascination with demon lover narratives to a Scottish folk ballad, “The Daemon Lover.” Toni Reed writes, in her book Demon-Lovers and Their Victims in British Fiction, “The ballad is found in the Scottish Border region … and is a distilled version of a Gothic romance about obsessive love and hate, for the woman in the ballad is just as controlled, just as victimized as the terrified women in Gothic novels.” Nakagawa says, “In the Gothic, the demon lover figure appears as the hero-villain, variously called the descendant of Milton’s Satan, Byronic hero, or “homme fatal,” as a character who drives the story as a thriller as well as a romance.”
There are conventions.
First the demon lover must cause the woman to fall in love; then he must leave her and life loses all savor. When Petrov first meets the narrator, he makes her happy, opens her eyes to new experiences: “Before you knew what you were saying you took me into the trees to hear the special birdsong. I tried and listened but that day the birds were lost or hiding.” Like the young girl in Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” (an interesting variant of a demon lover story), after the goblins have seduced her and given her the luscious, juice-laden fruit, they take away the gift of vision, and never again is she able to see the goblin men: “Her hair grew thin and grey; /She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn/To swift decay and burn Her fire away . . . “
In Jackson’s story, after filling her day with non-stop busywork preparing for her wedding day, she (the story never gives us her name, even as we never know the name of Petrov’s lover—these heroines are Everywomen) goes to his apartment: “She knew there was someone inside the other apartment, because she was sure she could hear low voices and sometimes laughter. She came back many times, every day for the first week. She came on her way to work, in the mornings; in the evenings, on her way to dinner alone, but no matter how often or how firmly she knocked, no one ever came to the door.”
When the demon lover makes his final exit, in one way or another, he doesn’t return.
In her analysis of this story (as well as the story “The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen), Chiho Nakagawa notes, “Her lover, James Harris seems to appear and disappear at will, true to the name of the demon lover. He comes out to this world just to give her a temporary bliss so that he can bring her enduring agony and humiliation.” Tepper’s Petrov also appears on his own schedule, is either kind or brutal (increasingly so as time goes on) and then disappears, leaving the agonized narrator to yearn after him and the bursting, vital life he brings with him.
Dr. Nakagawa goes on to note “I argue that the demon lover stories, a variation of erotomanic delusions, express a critique of the patriarchal society that exposes women to perpetual threats that are represented ambiguously in the form of demon lovers. Jackson’s story in particular shows that fears of the demon lover, however supernatural he may appear to be, are in fact of this world. … the fears and threats of the demon lover present themselves in a developed form that illuminates systematic controls of women. I will argue that those stories show a critique of the system in which women are exposed to the perpetual threats embodied by demon lovers.” (emphasis mine)
In dear Petrov, the narator is well aware of the threats of being unloved, abandoned, poor, cold and hungry, with only a horse for companionship. Apart from the hinted-at prostitution, her access to the necessities of life can come only through her relationship to Petrov, who as a male has access to work and money, who can bring her a sack of sweets whereas she can only provide a mash of milk and weeds for him.
Most demon lovers are male. However, lest I be accused of being biased in my exposition of this interesting phenomenon, I would like to call your attention to one of the most well-known examples of betrayed love in John Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” In this reversed poetic version of the myth (for the demon lover stories satisfy the classic requirements for myth: the sum of all stories of a particular type within a cultural system), a knight-at-arms is lingering beside a lonely lake. While he was in the favor of the faerie woman, living was easy: “She found me roots of relish sweet,/And honey wild, and manna-dew,/And sure in language strange she said—/‘I love thee true’.”
However, when the honeymoon was over, it was a different story: “And I awoke and found me here,/ On the cold hill’s side./And this is why I sojourn here,/Alone and palely loitering,/Though the sedge is withered from the lake,/And no birds sing.’ Our narrator says, “I have watched the summer sun turn to a dark globe. Yet still you keep away. Our rooms, once bright, are the desolate chambers of a single mourner. Like the sun, I have taken to wearing black.” Both narrators are experiencing a form of life in death.
At first, we may tend not to recognize dear Petrov as a demon lover narrative because the prototype is so embedded in gender stereotypes of our culture, especially when we are reading a narrative set in a previous period, dear Petrov’s nineteenth-century Russia. Men are active, providers, soldiers. They have more access to the world’s supply of money, which means food, clothing, warmth and happiness. But Tepper has added a new arrow to the quiver full of demon lover narratives, an enduring literary form in our culture, and thus added to the myth.
All this is expressed in her gorgeous flow of language and firm control of the elements of the narrative. It’s easy to get caught up in this tale and think, “Woman, shake yourself up and get away from that man.” Not so easy nowadays and almost impossible in nineteenth century Russia.
Petrov was in control, whether we accept him as a real figure or as a construct of the narrator’s desires. She was unable to desire anything other than the male role rodel her culture and time gave her and that was of a woman with access to food, clothing, warmth and happiness only through the figure of a male provider while she hugged her all-devouring, unrequited love. Without that, she was doomed, as was the knight-in-arms, to spend her life sojourning in the countryside, in her vast ruined home, alone and palely loitering. With no birdsong.
Inscription by Christine Whittemore
Sowilo Press, 2015
Winner of the Eludia Award
I’ve taken some time reading Christine Whittemore’s Eludia Award novel, Inscription, because I have read it twice. I often do this. I like to read a good novel once rather quickly, moving right ahead, to get an overview of the whole story (lingering a bit here and there, of course, over choice passages). On my second reading, I read much more slowly, savoring description, character development and just, in general, the felicities of the writing.
This reading technique worked very well for me when reading this rich tapestry of a book. Whittemore is an excellent writer, fully in control of all her material, writing that lets the reader fully and sympathetically identify with characters such as the main character, Marina, a scribe who is, unusually for the 1st century, a woman, or the other main character, Aubrey, a contemporary woman.
The basic format of the book weaves together the two women and the two time periods in which they live. Aubrey, a specialist in ancient manuscripts, happens upon a 1st century Latin manuscript written by Marina, originally from Brittania, during her time in exile on Ponza, an Italian island, reflecting on her life in Rome as well as her life in exile. As Aubrey translates the material, her commentary also becomes commentary on her own life, which she writes between the lines of her translation. Gradually the reader becomes aware of the affinities the two women share in the loneliness and consolations of their own lives. The strands that bind them over the centuries wind ever closer.
It sounds very complicated, but somehow, being drawn into these two lives, makes it easier for us to understand life in the 1st century world. The complexities of Roman life, especially for women, are easier to understand when we have learned to care for characters like Marina, who was scribe to Lady Flavius Domitilla, the emperor’s niece, whose own niece Tilla tried to save from exile on the island of Pandateria, only to be sent into exile herself, on the small island of Ponza, accompanied by Marina.
I found myself very involved in the precarious lives of these women. Aubrey, who changed her own name and thus removed herself from easy research by her unknown descendants, by the end of this book stepped into history. These lives all seem very complicated but when we stop to think about our own lives, we realize this complexity is the human experience. Back in the day, even Pontius Pilate famously said, “What is truth?”
I think there is a very good possibility that, when some time has passed, I may read Inscription again. It’s that good, leading us skillfully through the complexities of 1st century life, religion, and politics. Wonderfully symmetrical and satisfying ending but I won’t be a spoiler. You’ll have to find out for yourself and you will be very happy you did so.
Review of Postacrds from the Dead Letter Office
by Dawn Manning
Published by Burlesque Press, 2016
It is not necessary to know anything about tanka, an ancient Japanese poetry form, to enjoy the poems in Dawn Manning’s Postcards from a Dead Letter Office. However, she has written a succinct introduction to the form that will enhance your enjoyment. These poems employ often contrastive images juxtaposed in interesting ways and almost always use a characteristic turn or twist about halfway through the poem. The second half may show another aspect of the first lines or introduce a new idea. The middle line may complete the first half and introduce the second half. The subtlety of having the two parts very different is considered high art. Traditionally, sometimes two poets wrote the two parts to ensure great contrast. A huge part of the enjoyment of reading these poems is noting the different ways the poem is developed.
The poems in Dawn Manning’s collection employ many different devices to satisfy the requirement of the different kinds of relationships between the first and last parts of the poems. As she points out in the introduction, “The pivot is often achieved by the juxtaposition of images, an image and a response or the movement from strophe to antistrophe. Other techniques central to tanka include the use of the objective correlative, volta (or turn, in which the poem feels suspended and a new idea is introduced), and zeugma (in which the middle line completes the thought or image of the first component but can also be read as the first line of the second component).
It is a little difficult to talk about tanka because part of the tradition is that they have no titles so I will refer to individual poems by their first lines as we look at several examples from the book.
In the the first poem of the collection,“on Sundays,” we read the first three lines and anticipate a poem that will continue in the religious vein only to be delightfully surprised by the last two lines, in which money in the collection plate is compared with a definite twist to astronomical phenomena.
brass collection plates
new galaxies of silver
and copper suns
Another example, in which the middle line completes the first two and begins the next two, is “you needed the scars.” You can begin with the middle line and read this poem up or down with equal meaning.
you needed the scars,
the years in the desert,
whispers the muse,
the way fire needs darkness,
something to devour
To show the variety of Manning’s shifts between the two parts of the poem, consider this poem, “toasting another year” with yet another approach, interesting because we can speculate on whether the author is looking at actual napkins caught in the drafts of high buildings, or by some happy coincidence, seeing the napkins fall as doves join the fluttering downfall. Are we considering a comparison or a juxtaposition?
toasting another year
our napkins flutter down
from the rooftop restaurant—
swoop between high-rises
The tanka in this collection (each group of tanka is introduced by a longer poem that sets the thematic tone for the group) are divided into borderlands tanka, Mexico tanka, spring tanka, Tyrolean tanka, Venetian tanka, summer tanka, Amazon tanka, autumn tanka, museum tanka, winter tanka and China tanka. The poet mentions topophilia, love of place, early on in a poem that begins “I’m always crossing horizons I once believed in, boundaries not as solid as the borders these scratched tracks mapped/into white space pretend.” As we enjoy this collection, we appreciate the horizons and boundaries the author plays with: a traditional Japanese form updated and “Englished.” Seeing life in a dead cat because ants are trekking into its body. Dissolving the lines between the sacred and the secular. Experiencing tone-deafness when looking at pages written in an unknown language. Seeiing a wild spider web as a domestic knitted doily.
Tanka poet Marianne Bluger, speaking about the winner of the 2003 Tanka Society of America tanka contest, said, “Fine tanka are lyric poems characterized by their formal structure, and by the immediacy and intensity of one particular moment. They tell us where a body is in the world; and what is going on in the poet’s heart and mind. And then, by the force of the image(s) and by the clarity of both perception and language, the reader is transported from thse very particulars into some kind of transcendence. … Tanka poems are naked poetry. The soul is bare, somehow.”
Almost all of the poems in this collection are grounded in place and time, not only by the larger divisions noted above but by what we might call micro-geography—an old bridge, a techno club surrounded by jacaranda trees, the junk behind a mechanic’s garage, a highway someplace, at some time, a highway with headlights that reveal a wolf chasing a deer. As we savor these locations, delineated artfully with just a few words, we are indeed privy to what is going on in the poet’s mind. We have been invited to see, in a flash of headlights, the highway scene. Our first thought is for the deer trying to escape the predator, and then we are brought up short, into a transcendant realization, the second flash, in which both are trying to escape from the other predator, us.
reveal the chase
in two flashes: the deer
runs for its life, but so does
To this western reader, tanka after tanka might lead to a certain amount of reading fatigue as the mind has to absorb so nimbly and rapidly a steady flow of new images and new developments. It is refreshing to read the longer poems that serve as “entremets,” in a sense, between the categories of tanka. For example, this longer poem introducing the autumn tankas maintains the sense of occasion and place but lets us linger in familiar seasonal images and feelings while maintaining the tanka awareness of seasons and fleeing impressions:
come so early—
fat squirrels wriggle open
the mailbox to bury nuts
in this pile of dead leaves
we keep Halloween vigil
with albino toms
ghosting through our alley—
heat-thin, flame-quick ferals
untroubled by their snipped wicks
the wild turkey entourage
bobs, clucks, and gobbles
through the labyrinth/of purring cars—
rush-hour delay no one minds
I’ll end by again quoting Marianne Bluger, writing about another collection of tanka:
“ Every one of these poems achieves “tanka splendour,” that lift-off into truth and loveliness that brings the reader solace and joy, however sad the subject matter.” These words capture perfectly the essence and fulfillment of the poems in Postcards from the Dead Letter Office (that wonderful, evocative title). Hey, it’s a very fine book—buy a copy and settle down with poetry you can read over and over. Maybe you’ll even try your hand at some tanka.
A BIG BIG BIG THANK YOU to Christine Whittemore for this discerning Amazon review of my new collection of short fiction, Sleepers Awake! Christine also won the Eludia Award from Hidden River Arts for her novel, Inscription.
"Witty, wondrous, and a touch weird (in the best way)!
"Witty, wondrous, and a touch weird (in the best way)!
I should mention that I came to know about this book because it won the Eludia Prize from Hidden River Arts the year before my own book Inscription did. But I'd never be praising it here if my admiration weren't genuine. These brilliant stories are so well written. The voices they are told in are witty, satirical, and wise. Saints and relics turn up in these stories, mixed with the nitty-gritty and pocket-lint of life; but suddenly a strange light is shed, as with the procession in a trailer park that somehow turns into a Renaissance painting for a moment….There is humour, but beneath the joking, there is depth. Riesener deploys religious themes in a modern context, and, while poking fun at our hypocrisy and silliness over religion, she also reminds us that these ideas are interwoven into our culture, and won't go away, and may in fact still have something important to tell us. She does this with a light touch that makes it all the more effective. I think it is so hard to talk about religion at all in the current intellectual climate, and she has found a brilliant way to approach it and weave it in to her characters' lives, but always seen at that oblique, off-beat angle. I must stress that the mention of "religion" should not scare anyone off; even readers who don't have any religious background or interests will find these stories funny, interesting, humane, and damned good writing."